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Nancy Sommers

Coming to Teaching

Posted by Nancy Sommers Expert Jul 25, 2018

[This was originally posted February 1, 2011.]

 

Recently I was asked by a group of new writing teachers to give them one single piece of advice about teaching. As I tried to compose myself—just one?—and sifted through the various mantras that seemed possible, I offered up the following: Become a teacher who sees learning through the eyes of students.

 

I walked into my first classroom some decades ago with equal parts of enthusiasm and terror. I was just a few years older than my students and barely a step or two ahead. To prepare for class, I had spent hours with a mimeograph machine, staining my hands purple, obsessively duplicating a stack of handouts to fill a seventy-five-minute slot, lest my students found me wanting. What strikes me now about those early years of teaching is that all my new-teacher anxieties were focused on my own performance. I never considered adjusting classroom lessons to students’ rhythms and silences, as they practiced the unfamiliar moves of academic writing.

 

A few years ago, I started yoga classes, seeking to learn something new but also to see learning from the back of the room, from the perspective of a student who doesn’t know how to contort her body into a downward facing dog. I wanted to understand the experiences of students who don’t yet know how to write English sentences or paragraphs or who don’t understand the common language of academic writing. And I wanted to take a page or two of teaching methods from inspiring teachers who could help me reach my own students in the back of the room.

 

Along the way, I discovered a passion for yoga. At first I was a baffled and frustrated student who looked sideways to copy the postures of others and was clueless when teachers uttered words, especially in Sanskrit, that everyone but me seemed to understand. But I was also fortunate to find compassionate and generous teachers who didn’t bark commands—“Do downward facing dog”—but rather anticipated what was required for students to assume such a posture and devised a progression of small moves and sequences to help us learn the pose. These teachers appreciated the difficulties of being a novice and encouraged students to be patient—to learn by experimenting, approximating, and practicing.

 

These days I try not to bark commands to my students—“Cite your sources” or “Write clear sentences”—but to respect the challenges they face as novice academic writers. I ask: What do students need to know to cite sources or write clear sentences? And how can a writing assignment be broken down into a series of small steps and sequences to give students sufficient practice with individual skills, one lesson at a time, with opportunities to approximate the skills as they practice them? With so much newness in the classroom, we want students—those who sit in the front as well as those in the back—to learn from one another, especially to understand that learning takes practice, yes, but that it’s also a habit of mind, that each lesson is worth learning to become good college writers.

 

And teaching is so much more fun without purple-stained hands or a mimeographed stack of handouts. I’ve learned to love the silences in a classroom, even to listen for them, as they guide me—patiently and compassionately—to see learning through the eyes of students.

 

Whether you’ve been teaching one year, thirty-one years, or longer, please join the conversation. What one brief piece of advice would you offer new writing teachers? Or what advice was offered to you as a new teacher that you want to pass forward?

 

Share your suggestions, thoughts, or teaching stories in the comments!

Hello, dear Colleagues: I send all good wishes to you and your students for the new academic year. I’m often asked these two questions at the start of the semester: What are the best ways to introduce a Hacker/Sommers handbook? and What activities might help students develop the habit of using a handbook?

 

We know that most students enter a writing classes uncertain about what a handbook is and how and why it will help them succeed as college writers. Yet we also know that the more students rely on their handbook, the more effective they will become as writers, especially when they’re writing their papers at 2 a.m. and need a trusted source to answer their questions about using sources and meeting the expectations of college writing.


On the first day of class I tell my students this: Everything you need to become a successful college writer in any course is in your handbook. Buy it, become friends with it. I’ve learned, though, that this statement is a well-intentioned abstraction unless I require students to bring their handbook to each class and give them specific reasons to open it—questions to answer or problems to solve—and show them how the book is designed for them. I want students to start asking questions about their writing and to learn how to find the answers in their handbook. One of my oft repeated queries in class is—Where in your handbook will you find the answer to that question?


I designed the following activities to introduce A Writer's Reference and activities to introduce Rules for Writers to help students become more confident using their handbook. These activities—scavenger hunts, open-book quizzes, and more—promote collaboration among students as they learn to navigate their handbook. Enjoy using these activities with your students. Let me know how it goes.


With all good wishes,
Nancy Sommers

Nancy Sommers

Thank you, MLA!

Posted by Nancy Sommers Expert May 25, 2016

Dear Friends—let’s welcome the 8th edition of the MLA Handbook, published April 1, 2016, a simpler and more flexible system for students to learn and for us to teach. Most importantly, it is a system that allows us to focus students’ attention on why writers use sources and how documentation extends a research conversation. WritersRef MLA Update.PNGThe emphasis of the 8th edition is not on rules; rather, it is on making documentation useful to readers and on helping writers to participate in an academic community—a community in which the exchange of ideas requires a system.

 

As composition teachers, the ones in charge of introducing our students to MLA, we approach these seismic changes in the MLA system with some trepidation. We need to learn a new system and be comfortable and conversant with it in time for our September classes. Yet we understand, too, from our students’ confusion in documenting digital sources, and our own challenges in teaching an overly cumbersome system, why the 8th edition is needed.

 

Here are the problems the 8th edition addresses:

 

(1) In its attempt to keep up with the rapid evolution of sources, the 7th edition presented models for each source type or format. As the editors of the 8th edition write, “we need a system for documenting sources that begins with a few principles rather than a long list of rules.” The 8th edition shifts attention away from models for each source type to documentation principles that can be applied across sources.

 

(2) Sources have become less stable and more mobile. Publications “migrate readily from one medium to another,” and are no longer contained in simple categories. An idea might start as a blog, for instance, develop into a TED talk, be published as an article, and reposted on a Web site. The source might be located or viewed in a format very different from its original publication, so guidelines are needed to account for that sort of migration.

 
Enter the 8th edition of the MLA, with its relaxed, more flexible approach to documentation. The 8th edition focuses attention on “simple traits shared by most works” that run across all sources:

 

  • Author
  • Title of Source
  • Title of Container
  • Other Contributors
  • Version
  • Number
  • Publisher
  • Publication Date
  • Location

 

These simple, core traits are recognizable to us as writing teachers, except for the new one, “container.” Here’s how to understand the container concept: A container is any larger work that contains or holds the source cited. A container might be an anthology, a print journal, a podcast series, an online discussion board, a Web site, and so forth. Containers can be nested: If a container is itself part of some larger container, such as a journal located in an online database or a photograph collection in a digital archive, then information about the second container--the online database or the digital archive--becomes part of the documentation to help readers locate it.

 

As writing teachers, we encourage students to enter a research conversation by engaging with the ideas of other writers who have explored and studied their topic. We urge them to look for debates, areas of disagreement, so that they can find gaps and entry points for themselves in this conversation and gain authority by consulting a wide range of digital and print sources. The guidelines in MLA’s 8th edition make it easy for us to extend documentation as part of a research conversation between writers and sources and between writers and readers. Rather than teaching documentation as a series of rules to memorize, we can teach it rhetorically, as decisions made by writers to guide their readers quickly and unobtrusively to the source of a quotation, a paraphrased or summarized idea, or other kind of borrowed material used to support an argument.

 

All of the Hacker/Sommers handbooks will feature guidelines and models based on the 8th edition of the MLA Handbook. Look for “2016 MLA Update” stickers on the covers.

Blogging started for me with the desire to enter our vast digital public square for conversation. As a writing teacher, I love watching my students’ fearlessness as bloggers. They understand the blogosphere as an open, experimental space, where they can self-publish, posting their passions and opinions.  As a writer, I wanted to experiment with new subjects, improvise with new forms, and write to the world to see what the world has to say back.

 

When given the chance to blog for Huffington Post’s lifestyle page—“Life Begins at Fifty”—I started, tentatively, writing more of a 600-word exploratory essay than a blog.  And, mostly, I got blogging wrong, in that first post, by violating the first principle of composition—know your audience! But I was immediately hooked—hooked on the freedom of the form and the opportunity to test and try out ideas.

 

My subject, in that first blog, was choosing a name for myself as a grandmother. It turns out, in the world of grandmothers, you get to choose an affectionate name for yourself, a name like a stuffed animal with comforting sounds—Granny or Gammy, Bubbe or Omi—names that didn’t fit comfortably when I tried them on.  As I started thinking about the subject, it occurred to me that my knowledge about grandmothers comes less from my memories as a granddaughter and more from the decades of reading students’ essays about their grandmothers.

 

I wrote the blog in the familiar voice of a composition teacher who loves reading students’ essays about their storybook grandmothers handing down family history while standing at the stove.  And I wrote to an audience I know—my fellow composition teachers—who have also read hundreds of grandmother essays and understand why students don’t easily revise essays about grandmothers: grandmothers aren’t a venue for critical thinking.  What I didn’t do is to write to Huffington Post’s lifestyle audience or shape the purpose of the blog to meet audience expectations.  It would take further experimentation to learn how to write to the thousands of anonymous readers on the other side of the screen.

 

Since that first post, I’ve blogged about a range of topics— family and food, birth and death, exercise and health. What I’ve learned is that successful blogs convey one point, a single idea clearly, concisely; they do not begin mid-conversation, as essays often do. They are ephemeral, intended to be read in a minute or two, and to vanish from the Huffington Post within a day or two.  And to be successful, they need to create a role for the audience to participate in the blog—whether as a reader who likes and links it, giving it thumbs up, and passing it forward to friends, or a more basic, human role to converse with a writer whose voice and sensibility are simpatico.  Without an active role for readers, there is no conversation around a blog. Readers move on.

 

Yet something quite wonderful happens for a writer in those few moments when a blog is most alive.  That something, it seems to me, is the essence of why I write. It is the pleasure of finding an audience who will run with my words, add their own, amplify and expand my story.  Blog readers want to participate in this public, collective, conversational form of writing. And as a writer, I want to create roles for them to participate.

 

At CCCC, on April 8th, 2 PM, I will be talking about blogging  and what I’ve learned as a writer from the freedom of the form and the pleasures of writing for a new audience.  I look forward to seeing you in Houston!

The academic year is fast approaching. I’m looking forward to meeting my students and returning to the classroom. One of my goals during the first weeks of the semester is to Ref 8e.jpgintroduce students to the handbook we’ll be using, A Writer’s Reference. I tell students on the first day of class, Everything you need to become a successful writer in any college course is in A Writer’s Reference; become friends with it. I want students to learn, right from the outset, that questions are a natural part of learning how to write; and I want to show them how their handbook is designed to answer their writing questions. 

 

This year I’ll be introducing the handbook to students with these first-week activities—scavenger hunts, editing exercises, and open-book quizzes—to help students become successful college writers. The activities are designed to promote collaboration, too, so that students can work together as fellow writers while learning to navigate their handbook. 

 

I think students will have fun with the scavenger hunts because they provide real writing problems—“you are writing a research paper and are uncertain how to punctuate quotations”; “you’ve received feedback that your paragraphs need clearer topic sentences”—and ask students to work with classmates to find the answers in their handbook.  Once students learn to navigate the handbook, they see how quickly and efficiently they can find solutions to their writing problems.  

 

We know that the more comfortable students become using their handbook, the more confident and successful they will become as college writers. If you’re using A Writer’s Reference, you’ll find these first-week activities a great way to help your students become confident college writers.

Nancy Sommers

Finding a Voice

Posted by Nancy Sommers Expert Apr 8, 2015

This blog was originally posted on April 21st, 2014.

 

Voice is that elusive category we talk about with students—“find your voice,” we urge, as if they left it somewhere, in a dresser drawer, perhaps, or as if they could purchase it on Amazon.  But there is no lost and found drawer for voice, no way to shop for it, or seek it out.  Voice is something students have to write their way into, something that takes practice and play, and numerous attempts while listening for their own idiosyncratic take on the world.

 

Teaching creative nonfiction this semester has given me an opportunity to talk more about voice, something that too often seems missing from the over-crowded academic writing class, with its rush from analysis to argument to research writing. There’s plenty to teach about voice in academic writing, especially its absence in stilted, dull prose, or its presence in particular genres, but, unfortunately, in first-year writing the subject of voice often takes a back seat.  A creative nonfiction course is over-crowded in its own way, as we move from one assignment to the next, practicing dialogue and crafting scenes in one exercise, handling the passage of time with back-stories and reflections in the next, and always reflecting on what draws us into the world of the essays we read or those which students write. Voice is center stage in every discussion about subject, style, shape, and narrative technique; it is always on the page and in our workshops as students figure out who they are—and who they want to be—in their own narratives.

 

One way to approach the elusiveness of voice is by not talking about it at first. Instead, I talk with students about the ways in which all good creative nonfiction—and all good academic writing, too—has, at its center, a writer trying to figure something out— struggling with a problem,  a dilemma or contradiction—a “not knowing” which gives the writing its reason for being. As students plan their narratives, I ask them to write from curiosity:  What is it you want to understand—what doesn’t make sense—what pieces don’t fit together?   These questions and the spirit of exploration they engender don’t guarantee that students will write their way into an engaging, compelling, genuine voice, but they encourage them to write away from certainty and cliché, and into complexity.

 

In writing creative nonfiction, students discover a freedom of form that often leads to the kind of explorations that bring them closer to a voice they recognize. In handling the passage of time, for instance, they often need to question the reliability of memory—a subject in itself– or think against themselves and test assumptions in order to see perspectives other than their own.  Or in wrestling with the complexity of family secrets, for example, they often need to interview relatives, examine evocative photographs and objects to understand the personal and historical back-stories behind these secrets.  It requires plenty of practice and play to be comfortable on the page, and doesn’t happen with a single assignment or writing course, but when students explore a question or problem that really matters to them, they start listening for their personal, quirky, idiosyncratic take on the world.

 

Dear Readers:  How do you talk about voice with your students?  What exercises or assignments help your students find a comfortable voice on the page? Please share your ideas by leaving a comment below.

This blog was originally posted on February 13th, 2014.

 

Dear Readers: Here’s a question for you:  How do we reinvent ourselves, semester after semester, to keep our teaching fresh and new?

 

This is a question I’m pondering as I mentor new teachers, their passions palpable, their enthusiasm unbridled; they can’t imagine a more perfect calling than teaching writing. I ask them to reflect on what brought them to education, and I find myself asking, after thirty-some years of teaching, what has kept me here? How do I find those corners in myself, year after year, that rhyme with my students—and subject matter—and that keep me passionate about teaching?

 

Flashback to my first teaching experience: I imagined teaching to be nothing more than bringing my love of Walt Whitman to students, eighth graders brimming with the rhythms of Chicago’s urban life. I thought the only way to love Whitman was to read poetry outdoors, to luxuriate in the grass, marveling at the conjugation of the color green.  My students, though, had no desire to celebrate leaves of grass.  They had plenty to say, their bodies electric, but I wasn’t listening to the call of their stories. Looking back, I realize how much of the year was a song of myself, more soliloquy than an exchange of voices, more my performance than theirs.

                                                                                                   Nancy Sommers, circa 1978

It took a decade or more for me to understand that teaching requires both humility and leaps of faith—and, most importantly, the willingness to listen to and learn from students—a back and forth exchange that comes from helping students to give voice to their own ideas, and not impose passions, literary or political, on them.

 

What I learned from my students, when I started listening, is how to write— a preposterous claim, I suppose, since I’m the one who is supposed to be the teacher.  But their struggles to revise and my difficulties responding to their drafts revealed my own limitations as a writer and provided a subject to write about. It started with revision, watching students sabotage their own best interests as they moved words around, their successive drafts weaker than their first.  I started researching and writing about my students, their questions and challenges, curious about why some prospered as college writers while others lagged.  My students gave me a subject and, in doing so, invited me to join them on the page, not as the critic in the margins of their work, but as a fellow writer, compassionate and less judgmental.

 

These days I consider myself as much a writer as a teacher, although there are plenty of years in which the balance between teaching and writing is lopsided, the teaching taking precedence, and I need to write my way back to balance the equation. Humility comes from teaching writing as a writer; and a loss of certainty comes, too.  I am less likely to impose my interpretation upon a student’s draft and more likely, as a fellow writer, to recognize vulnerability, especially when students are asked to put their first drafts aside and start anew.

Each semester I am inspired by my students’ stories, their writing struggles and successes as they compose essays about complex subjects that matter to them.  Helping students develop as thinkers and writers is a calling, one that is renewed each semester by students. I can’t imagine work more important than this.

 

Dear Readers: Whether you’ve been teaching writing for two years or thirty-two, how do you keep teaching fresh and new?  Share your stories and ideas below.